Northern Virginia Daily

Article date:  May 29, 2012

Front Royal's Superfund Site Showing Signs of Ecological Revival

By Joe Beck


Here is what progress looks like at the Superfund site in Front Royal formerly occupied by the Avtex Fiber plant:: the EPA oversight inspector has left, and the frogs and butterflies are coming back.

Spring 2012 at what was once of the most forbidding stretches of land in Virginia has brought more optimism and hope than usual this year to John Torrence. Torrrence, who manages the site for FMC Corp., the company assigned by the EPA to clean up the toxic chemicals left by decades of intense industrial processes, spoke glowingly of the progress he sees all around him.

site managerFoxes, beavers, geese and, most importantly, butterflies and frogs - they're all here and growing in numbers on land that was once considered hopelessly contaminated, Torrence said. The clean up effort involving the EPA, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and FMC is finally paying off, Torrence said.

"This has all the earmarks of being a successful project," Torrence said as he toured the site one day recently. "The EPA, FMC and DEQ are all crossing the finish line as winners."

Such an outcome didn't seem likely back in 1989 when bankrupt Avtex closed the plant, three years after the EPA added it to the agency's list of Superfund cleanup sites. The factory opened in 1940 as a response to the military's need for synthetic fibers in parachutes and other equipment that would be used in the war against Germany and Japan. The plant continued manufacturing materials such as rayon, polyester and polypropylene until its closure. Removal of toxic chemical residues from soil and water has continued since then, a project that included the demolition of 17 acres of buildings in 1997.

Biologists and volunteer census takers began checking the population of various forms of wildlife at the sprawling 433-acre Superfund site around 2000. In recent years, they have detected several encouraging signs of ecological revival.

M. Victoria McDonald, a researcher affiliated with the University of Central Arkansas and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal wrote the following commentary in 2009 on the butterfly population: "We found 14 species of butterflies in the summer of 2007, all of them common and expected for the relatively few wild flower types blooming at the Avtex site. We discovered an increase in diversity of butterflies in 2008; we tabulated 23 different species in just a few weeks of mid summer sampling."

blackbirdMcDonald said the increased numbers and diversity "could be weather-related" but were more likely the product of "increasing ecological diversity that is being created naturally and by planting native Virginia vegetation at the Avtex site."

Torrence said the news about the butterflies heartened him for an additional reason.

"When the air is fresh and clean, you have more of them. When it isn't fresh and clean you have fewer," he said.

Frogs and salamanders, two more key indicators of a healthy habitat, are also showing signs of revival among the species counted at the site.

An FMC cleanup crew found a salamander while digging up and removing sewer lines in 2008, and a second one was found later that year.

McDonald reported finding four species of frogs and one salamander in her 2009 report, adding that "green frogs are considered to be the 'pioneers' of habitats previously devoid of breeding amphibians, and they are also considered to be the toughest - or best able to withstand contaminants - of all the mid-Atlantic area amphibians. We are hopeful that the calling frogs will soon produce tadpoles that mature and breed themselves."

The first tadpoles were spotted last year, giving another boost to Torrence's optimism about the site's future.

"They're actually breeding here," Torrence said of the frogs, calling it "an indicator that the whole quality of the site has been improving."

Torrence and others working on the cleanup effort are expecting to pass another milestone within a few months when the EPA does some final checks before deciding whether to issue a letter of "no further interest," meaning the agency has no plans for conducting more investigations at the site. An agency inspector assigned to oversee the cleanup effort for 14 years completed his work in September, Torrence said.

The letter declaring no further interest would clear the way for the Warren County-Front Royal Economic Development Authority to begin formally offering 162 acres at the site that has been reserved for business development.